SHEHZAD SOHNA is proud of his small eight-acre cotton plot near Multan in Pakistan's cotton heartland. The poor farmer left high school three years ago to help his father, who was nearly bankrupt after Pakistan was hit by a large cotton crop failure.
Mr. Sohna now sees a glimmer of hope after a recent bumper cotton harvest, which has made him determined to plant cotton again this year. ''Cotton has been good to us,'' he says ''We have made up for some of our past losses.''
The bumper cotton crop - perhaps 28 percent larger than a year ago - promises to help Pakistan's beleaguered economy. Some 60 percent of the country's export income has traditionally come from cotton products, and the textile sector is Pakistan's largest industrial employer.
Pakistan hopes to earn up to $700 million by exporting raw cotton during the next three months. That would total almost half the nation's present official foreign-exchange reserves - a huge boost to the country's balance-of-payments position.
Some business leaders worry that even the cotton recovery will not necessarily improve the country's economic outlook, especially in view of persistent violence in Karachi and inflation that followed the 10 percent devaluation of the rupee in October and increased duties on imports.
The textile industry, which relies on cheap raw cotton to remain profitable, has been in crisis for two years, largely because of successive crop failures that pushed up raw-cotton prices.
THE improved output of cotton has resulted partly from the introduction of new crop varieties that are more tolerant to attacks by the ''leaf curl virus,'' which has caused much of the recent cotton losses.
''Varieties most susceptible to pest attacks have been eliminated, and some banned,'' says Zahoor Ahmed, director of Pakistan's largest cotton research institute at Multan. According to official estimates, newer varieties are now used on over 70 percent of the 6.2 million acres planted with cotton in Pakistan.
Despite the successful crop results, no one can say if the trend is sustainable. During the past two years, farmers have been hit by up to 50 percent increases in the price of chemical fertilizers. And many farmers have been taken in by purveyors of adulterated pesticides. The government has introduced tough new laws against such fraud, under which a seven-year prison sentence and hefty fines are possible.
Despite the high input costs, farmers will still grow cotton rather than other crops, Mr. Ahmed says: ''The farmer doesn't have a choice. He goes for cotton, because if it flourishes, it gives large profits.''